The 1937 depression era musical, Babes in Arms, ran 289 performances, offering many iconic songs later used in other shows: “Where or When?” “My Funny Valentine,” Johnny One Note,” and “The Lady is a Tramp” are examples. Few of us were aware the show was choreographed by George Balanchine and marked the Broadway debuts of Alfred Drake and Dan Dailey.
Because the subsequent Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film was radically rewritten, even fewer are familiar with its original story: A group of destitute, Long Island teenagers whose parents are touring in an attempt to revive vaudeville, put on a show to avoid being placed in a Work Camp by the local sheriff. Characters include an avowed Communist and a southern, racial bigot.
Justin Schuman (Val) and Courter Simmons (Marshall); Lauren Nicole Chapman (Billie) and Justin Schuman (Val)
George Oppenheimer’s 1939 “sanitized, de-politicized rewrite” in which young people try to save a local summer stock theater from being demolished, is still most frequently performed. Musicals Tonight! uses most of the original.
Like all temporarily abandoned kids in Seaport, Long Island, best friends Val (Justin Schuman) and Marshall (Courter Simmons – good, natural presence) will be interned in a Work Camp tomorrow for their own good. Val barely has time to bristle when Billie (Lauren Nicole Chapman) appears with a series of trumped-up requests starting with car help and ending with a request for at least a cup of coffee. She’s been on the road from California, likely sleeping her way cross country. Instantly, a besotted Val offers dinner and a bed. To call the book abrupt would be kind.
Casey Shane (Gus) and Lilly Tobin (Dolores)
Billie talks our leading man out of giving in without a fight and the kids meet to concoct a plan. Even the Sheriff’s daughter, town flirt, Dolores (Lilly Tobin), is among them. Her current main squeeze Gus (Casey Shane – pleasant voice, credible volatility), is a sweet boy with a tendency to hit first and ask questions later. Dolores’s father (Joe Gately) thinks these sons and daughters of entertainers will all become bums. Marshall points out that the Camp has a library and their penniless group would at least be fed. Still, freedom is freedom.
It’s decided the kids will put on a show raising funds to survive. The only possible source of production money, however, is Lee Calhoun whose wealthy family, having survived the market, is in the South of France. (Perry Sook – nice accent, aptly apparent ego.) When Billie seduces him into stepping up, Lee declares “You have to have superior men (in charge) just as there are superior races.”
Evan Mayer (Ensemble), Keaton Tetlow (Beauregard), Perry Sook (Lee Calhoun), Casey Shane (Gus Fielding)
Prejudice is repeatedly spot-lit as Lee tries to keep little brother Beauregard (Keaton Tetlow) away from his black friend, Ivor (Sebastian Maynard-Palmer, a boy Shirley Temple with tap talent but blank expression). In fact, Lee won’t allow Ivor and his brother Irving to perform in the show. (Neville Braithwaite – low key characterization, good tapping.) Their duet is cute and skillful.
In perhaps the first of a series of show-in-barn conceits cutting a swathe from Broadway to Hollywood, Lee’s barn will act as the theater. Self avowed Communist, Peter, (Michael Lorz), wins a racing windfall and it looks as if they may not have to turn to the bigot, but pragmatically shedding affiliations, Peter plans to travel. Visiting child film actress, Baby Rose (Tessa Faye), now 16, agrees to star and rehearsals begin.
Courter Simmons (Marshall), Lauren Nicole Chapman(Billie Smith), Justin Schuman (Val)
The rest of the story contains jealousies, frustrations about finance and prejudice, a ridiculous dream sequence, and the unscheduled landing of record-breaking, French pilot, Rene Flabeau (Vincent Ortega – tiny role, swell performance.) Flambeau manages to put everything in its rightful, happy-ending place before the string of reprises.
Justin Schuman (Val) has an agreeable voice and an everyman persona that serves the piece. One never, alas, believes he’s smitten.
Both Lauren Nicole Chapman (Billie) and Lilly Tobin (Dolores) are worthy performers. Chapman has a fine voice, stage presence, and grounded believability. Tobin, in a character much like Ado Annie (Oklahoma!), sings well and is a good comedienne, knowing when to exaggerate and when to pull back.
Sebastian Maynard-Palmer (Ivor) and Neville Braithwaite (Irving)
Director Keith Andrews moves his company attractively around the stage and theater (employing the aisle and exits). Babes in Arms contains more actual choreography than perhaps any previous show at Musicals Tonight! Though performance area is small, buoyant, uncomplicated steps add lightness and variety. The young cast does a pretty good job. Several players unfortunately, remain unhampered hams.
James Stenborg does his reliably excellent job with Music and Vocal Direction.
The show is intriguing in its unpurified form, fun, and oh those songs!
Ensemble: Julia Franklin, Evan Mayer, Ryan Rhue, Connor Russell, Hannah Slabaugh, Hannah Spacone
Photos by Michael Portantiere
Opening: Evan Mayer (Ensemble), Courter Simmons (Marshall Blackstone), Julia Franklin (Ensemble), Lauren Nicole Chapman (Billie Smith), Justin Schuman (Val LaMar), Connor Russell (Ensemble), Casey Shane, (Gus Fielding), Hannah Spacone (Ensemble), Lilly Tobin (Dolores Reynolds), Michael Lorz (Peter Jackson)
Musicals Tonight! presents its 88th! Revival:
Babes in Arms
Libretto, Music & Lyrics- Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart
Director/Choreographer- Keith Andrews
Music Director/Vocal Arranger- James Stenborg
Producer- Mel Miller
The Lion Theater
410 West 42nd Street
Through March 20, 2016
Coming Up: March 22- April 3 Do, Re Mi by Jule Styne/Betty Comden & Adolph Green
April 5-17 Wonderful Town by Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden & Adolph Green